The wrong shade of brown

This topic is something that has been niggling away at me for sometime now, many of the things I will discuss here I have only ever disclosed to a select few, closest individuals. So I’m leaping the world of writing with some of my deepest untold truths. It’s a tad frightening…

Racism takes many forms, people will argue it doesn’t exist anymore or is he/she really was racist they wouldn’t even sit near you (yeah I really have heard those excuses) but often those views are from people who have not LIVED through it. It’s by no means their fault, it’s their privilege.

“Wait, you mean I’m brown?!”

I’m just going to come out and say it: I grew up not realising I was a different colour to the other kids. That’s the way I was brought up, to not see colour but to see a person. Obviously I noticed that I was a different shade visually, but it was not until I first experienced racism that I realised I was inherently “different”. That my darker skin meant something deeper to some, it was anything but surface level.

On September 11 2001, over 3,000 people lost their lives in what would become known as 9/11. It was this one moment in time, across the pond that was the catalyst in my personal crash course to racism and xenophobia, aged nine. Everything connects.

9/11 was a confusing event for me. I couldn’t wrap my naive young mind around why these two towers had crumbled, why had the planes flown right in? Was it like a disaster movie where they loose control? But how could two do that… What did these words mean that were thrown all over the place: “terrorist” and “terrorism”. It was a period of instability and fear; everyone reacts different in moments of fear. Some people, put up barriers, close out everything different – anything foreign. In retrospect I now see that fear in the eyes of two little boys as my nine-year-old self walked to the cemetery with my family. One rode past us on bike, the other walked right past me, stared me dead in the eye whilst saying, “You Afghan” followed by manic laughter and running away. I stood there a bit confused honestly. Up until the news reporting on 9/11 I had never heard of Afghanistan. I recall catching up with my mum, I relayed what had happened I think her response was somewhere along the lines of, “well, you’re not from there”. I knew that, but what was it about me that made this boy, similar in age to myself, feel it was okay to accost me in such a manner? Even if I was from Afghanistan, why would it matter? Why was it anything remotely to do with him? I had so many questions with little reassuring answers.

The aftermath and reaction to terrorist attacks have far reaching effects around the world, especially when they happen in the West. This is what scares me about today, the lack of awareness of politicians and the media who incite hate in the aftermath, who threaten to build walls while actually doing so in the communities we live in. Then again, the cynic in me thinks it’s not ignorance, they know what they are doing. I recently wrote on social media about the Finsbury attack in London “Events like the early hours of this morning in London, the West’s ongoing “war on terror” and right-wing newspapers/media, even the way the news reports on terrorism committed by non-Muslims, all have far reaching consequences in society. Often in the pockets of everyday life: a throwaway comment in the classroom, on the street, online, or the more vocal and even violent ones.” What you won’t hear in the news is how this hatred and vilification of Muslims and other ethnic minorities manifests itself in society. Let me give you a glimpse into that hate-filled world from a first hand perspective…

How does a first year high-school student deal with the older guys who constantly happy slap her from bus stairs or in busy corridors? I’m not talking light pats either, I mean full blown wacks to the head that left her with subsequent headaches hours after. The same guys who spit chewing gum into her hair on the crowded bus, the first time it was surely an accident? But no, it keeps happening…she’s so embarrassed to tell her mother that she cuts it out of her hair as soon as she gets home. Never really understanding why are they doing it to her? One might speculate – ah they were standard run of the mill bullies, nothing to do with race – but after a few of these incidents she develops a radar for the bigots and racists oh and then of course the fact that she’d always heard a murmur of “Afghanistan”, “Pakistan”, “Iraqi”, “Paki” (basically any middle eastern country – take your pick) if you got too close.

How does this first year student react when she joins the older year’s at the back of the school bus because there is simply no other seats, lumbered with her school bag, tote full of art materials and P.E. kit they comment just audibly enough that “there’s a terrorist on the back of the bus”. She grits her teeth and bares it, embarrassed and hoping her best friend next to her didn’t hear.

Or how about the girl in the same year who throws a chip covered in gravy at her across the lunch table for no reason, a mutual friend asks why and all this girl replies is, “She’s a bitch”. Yes that’s you, you the girl she has never spoke a single word to is: a bitch. The same girl then befriends you or at least takes to calling you “paprika” what you thought of as a funny joke that rhymes with your name turns into something more sinister, when another mutual friend tells you it’s because she says you smell. How fecking original. The most I smelt of aged 12 was Dove soap because puberty sucks.

And that is just Year 7.

I often observed from the sidelines fellow people of colour in my year, even those I went to primary school with who seemed to experience little or no racism. Even more baffling was the fact they often hung around with the ones who would treat me in such a manner. I have come to two conclusions. One at the time and one only recently. Firstly, quite immediately I realised I faced discrimination when other people of colour did not because: I was the wrong shade of brown. As a peer so eloquently put it, “We all know it’s Asians and Muslims that get the most hate now”. The most recent conclusion has been after talking to people I went to school with, their experiences and my own analysis. Male people of colour experience little or no racism at my school, this also goes hand in hand with the level of popularity, if you were brown but fortunate enough to be considered “cool” then you could just about fly under the radar and sail through school with minimum hatred towards you. I am female, I look Asian to the majority (despite coming from a British-Guyanese, Indian background), coupled with a somewhat geeky personality. Brown, female and geeky, huh, guess the odds were already stacked against me.

“You’re not from there, you’re not one of them it doesn’t matter.”

I took on that mentality myself in high school as a reactionary teenager not knowing how to cope, but I still felt every knock, every jibe. The fact is, regardless of whether how geographical wrong the moronic racists and xenophobes were in pinpointing my ancestral heritage – it was still an attack on me. An attack because I looked anything but Western. I tried to distance myself from it all. I was raised Catholic, attending a Catholic school (don’t even get me started on racism in religion – I think that’s a whole other post) I only disclosed my South American heritage and downplayed the Indian side, looking back I’m ashamed to say I let the bullies win, I let them make me feel I had to hide where I come from, it was less about pleasing them and more trying to avert future altercations. It really has taken the latter end of my 24 years of living to be okay with who I am. University played a huge role there, you’re basically given three years with little restriction on how much you can delved into yourself and explore whatever you want. Perhaps that was just my course but I used and re-used that time to make myself a better, confident individual, able to engage in these topics which our tutors often initiated. I realised it was okay to have conversations around it, that not everyone was as closed-minded, that I was not alone.

I was daft in my teenage years to think “yay they don’t associate me with the Middle East – life is good”. I still felt the glares, heard the murmurs and the laughter, but most of all I hated myself for not being true to me. So now I make a conscious effort to speak out. Why? Because I’m still an ethnic minority, their fight is my fight – it always will be. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not something I can run away from. I know of individuals who won’t discuss race or “get involved” But how can you not? I’ve always felt too much, thought too much, I sometimes consider this my greatest flaw but then other times I think heck the world surely needs more compassion, more understanding. If we all sat back and didn’t involve ourselves where we could potentially make a difference then were would be be? Or more pertinently where are we heading?

So what’s the point in this post you might ask, where do we go from here? Honestly, I am unsure. I don’t have an immediate solution but the older I get the more I realise you don’t have to tackle the entire world head on to make a difference. It starts locally, the people around you, in your community. One thing I can say is, my ordeals in high-school would have been a damn sight easier if there were people around me acknowledging what was going on and standing up for me. There’s a few I owe gratitude to who did this, at the time I didn’t realise the bravery it would have taken them to do so. Awareness is needed, having someone just stand next to you, ask “are you okay?” or “do you want to swap seats?” basically anyone who extends a hand of support that says: hey, you’re not alone and not everyone thinks like them. Call it out when you see it. We might not all be able to take on the hatred and convince the ignorant people otherwise but we certainly can stand by those who face discrimination.

Words & Photography: Radhika Mary